When Sidney Orchard entered the Parade Ice Garden in late November to watch her son's Minneapolis East hockey team open its season against archrival Minneapolis West, she could have been forgiven for thinking she'd come to the wrong arena.
The newly installed trophy case in the entryway was brimming with plaques, trophies, and team photos belonging to Totino-Grace, the Catholic school in Fridley that started sharing home ice with East and West at the Minneapolis Park Board-run facility last year.
Hanging above the rink was Totino-Grace's stately blue and gold banner, which last year replaced the six Minneapolis high school banners that had adorned the walls since the rink opened nearly 20 years ago.
And it was volunteers from Totino-Grace who were cheerfully selling hot dogs, nachos, and fountain sodas at the concession stand to the several hundred Minneapolis East and West fans who'd shown up for the game.
Even as Orchard was thrilled to watch her son's team skate to a hard-fought 3-2 victory, she was seething at the indignities. The banners were presumptuous, she felt, but the concessions crossed a line. "Why are we paying money to buy food from a suburban Catholic school when Minneapolis athletics are in such dire straits?" she wondered.
While many sports programs in the ever-shrinking Minneapolis public school system are struggling, none have hit harder times than its once-storied boys' hockey teams. In 1970, Minneapolis Southwest skated home with the state crown. Twenty years later, Minneapolis Edison's Joe Dziedzic was named Minnesota's Mr. Hockey, going on to play for the Pittsburg Penguins alongside the legendary Mario Lemieux. And for three straight years in the mid-1990s, Minneapolis had a team in the state tournament—a different school each time.
But times have changed. Those three schools—South, Edison, and Roosevelt—now combine to make up one team. Or at least in theory they do. Of the 20-man East varsity roster, one player attends Edison. The rest go to South. Last year, the team finished 3-22.
On the West side, the situation is similarly bleak. With hemorrhaging rosters, Washburn and Southwest combined their teams before last season to form the West team. (They are joined in spirit by North and Henry, neither of which has any varsity hockey players.)
Whereas just a few years ago Minneapolis fielded six boys' hockey teams, it now has two.
The reasons for the decline are many. For one, with open enrollment it's gotten easier for Minneapolis kids to attend bordering suburban schools, and some of the city's top skaters have flocked to traditional powerhouses like Bloomington Jefferson, as well as to private schools such as Cretin-Derham Hall and Holy Angels. In the past decade, hockey itself has continued to lose ground to soccer as the preferred sport of the minivan set. Then there is the district-wide plummeting enrollment, down from 48,689 to 34,570 in the last seven years alone. "The numbers speak for themselves," laments John Washington, athletic director for Minneapolis Public Schools. "Students are leaving Minneapolis."
It's a different story at Totino-Grace. The overachieving parochial school boasts a top-flight hockey program, which won the Class A state championship in 2002, and was a double-overtime loss away from another title three years later.
In the fall of 2006, the school's longtime home rink in Fridley was shuttered to make way for a condo development. The team relocated its practices and games to Parade, 11 miles from the school's campus. "With the number of Minneapolis schools dwindling, we knew they were looking for another team to buy some ice down there," recalls Mark Loahr, Totino-Grace's varsity boys' hockey coach.
In order to make the arena feel like home, Loahr and athletic director Mike Smith asked about putting up the team banner and setting up a trophy case. Reggie Krakowsi, manager of the rink, was happy to accommodate. "They take up lots of our ice time, which otherwise wouldn't get used," he says. "They're good tenants."
Thanks in large part to the warm welcome, Loahr says his team feels rooted at Parade. "The parents love it there," he says.
But when Parade gave Totino-Grace first dibs to schedule games in its inaugural year, the decision ticked off Washburn athletic director Dan Pratt. "I was blindsided by it," he says.
Although Pratt says Minneapolis teams got priority this year, some parents are still grumbling that too many of the city schools' home games are played at a barebones rink in north Minneapolis.
But if the scheduling was a frustration, the removal of six Minneapolis high school banners was a body blow. "It ripped my heart out," says Lynn Klobuchar, treasurer of the Minneapolis East booster club, who has two kids on the team. "It was so disrespectful."
Who decided to take down the banners remains a matter of some dispute. Krakowsi insists it was the school district. But none of the four Minneapolis athletic directors contacted for this story admit to having a hand in it.
"I have no idea who decided to take the banners down," says Dave Wicker, the athletic director at Henry who manages the Minneapolis West team. "It wasn't the schools that did it."
A week into the current season, Minneapolis schools put up new banners for East, West, and the girls' team, the Novas. "They're nice banners up there now," Klobuchar says. "But it's a year and a half too late."
Don Sigglekow, general manager of the Park Board, proudly points to the fact that the hockey rink is expected to break even, and likely turn a profit, without any taxpayer money. In this regard, he says, Totino-Grace has been a godsend. But he bristles at the suggestion that the Park Board has given the private school preferential treatment. "Minneapolis public schools get priority," he says, noting that boosters from city schools will have the opportunity to run the concession stand next year. "Outside of that we rent to a lot of private users."
But Lynn Klobuchar says the truth is plain to see. "You walk into a Minneapolis public building and you've got a private school from Fridley with their name plastered up on it," she says. "They bought the ability to do that, but what happened to us? Where did we go?"
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